Is the Oilers farm team properly developing players?

Jonathan Willis
May 18 2013 09:19AM

Under head coach Todd Nelson, the Oklahoma City Barons have been a consistently competitive club in the American Hockey League. However, many of the Edmonton Oilers’ young prospects have struggled to make the jump to the professional level. Is Nelson finding the right balance between winning and developing players?

Nelson’s Take

A few weeks back, Nelson was asked a question along this line during an appearance on Oilers Now. Here’s what he told host Bob Stauffer:

It’s a very delicate balance, Bob. One form of development is just the player himself, physically, learning the pro game, just trying to manage his life as a pro. The second part of it is, I think having success is a form of development. I think you have to balance it, you can’t go after wins all the time, of course everybody wants to win. In our case this year we never really dressed in our eyes at the time over the course of the season our strongest lineup every night. We had certain players that didn’t deserve to come out but we had to get players in so they could develop. Besides the skill development and learning the pro game, I think winning’s a form of it as well. Let’s face it, if we go into a situation where we’re losing a lot here, and a player’s good enough to play in the NHL, how’s he going to bring that winning attitude to the big club?

The Rookie Pros

How well have graduating forwards done under Nelson? To try and answer that question I’ve turned to Gabriel Desjardins’ NHL equivalencies. I’ve taken the points per game performance from each of Nelson’s first-year pros, projected it to the NHL, than projected it back to the AHL. The “Expected” column shows how many points we should have expected each player to score given the number of AHL games they’ve played; the “Percent” column shows how close they came to meeting that mark.

The picture painted is bleak, but I think it tends to overstate things (I’m also a little worried about survivorship bias – NHL projections are based on the players that make the jump from a league to the NHL, which suggests that on the whole they’re better than the group that jumps to the AHL).

Of the players on this list, I think there can’t be much in the way of complaint about anybody over the 80% mark. That’s a very strong group of first-year AHL’ers (and Kristians Pelss). Additionally, I’d suggest that defensive forwards like Tanner House and Chris VandeVelde likely scored the way they did due to situational usage – as older players on a college team, they were placed in offensive situations that they simply don’t have the ability to play at the professional level.

The most concerning group on this list are the major junior forwards. Aside from Kristians Pelss (who didn’t play that many games), every junior age forward Nelson has taken as a rookie pro has struggled early on – and most have found themselves consigned to depth roles. Milan Kytnar and Philippe Cornet fit this description, but the poster boys are Ryan Martindale, Curtis Hamilton and Tyler Pitlick – all reasonably high draft picks, all major scoring options in junior, all profound disappointments early in their professional careers.

Should that be placed at Nelson’s feet? To some extent, probably. However, Ryan Martindale wasn’t much better in the ECHL than he was in the AHL (and it’s hard to imagine that he wasn’t given opportunities in AA hockey). Milan Kytnar is playing in the KHL and isn’t scoring any better than he did in the AHL. Cornet has emerged as a scorer but Pitlick and Hamilton haven’t been any better in year two than they were in year one – and it’s hard to blame Nelson when guys like Rajala and Cornet are blowing past them offensively. Both Cornet and Rajala started in the ECHL, both played their way into a spot on the Barons and then played their way into offensive minutes.

Looking at this list of players, I tend to think that Nelson could perhaps place more of a premium on getting minutes to Oilers draft picks than he does. With that said I come away thinking that by far the lion’s share of the blame for the Oilers’ poorly developing prospects lies with the players themselves; if Pitlick and Martindale and Hamilton want to play NHL hockey, they have to start by playing better AHL hockey than Philippe Cornet.

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Recently around the Nation Network

With Toronto's first playoff run in ages over, it's time to assess the club and make decisions on returning players. Over at Leafs Nation, Cam Charron argues that Tyler Bozak should have played his last game as a Maple Leaf, because Phil Kessel plays just fine without him:

Kessel's point rates are similar, presumably because it wasn't really until this year that he started generating a tonne of assists. But when somebody other than Bozak is setting him up, his scoring increases by 26%.

 Click the link above to read the whole piece, or feel free check out some recent pieces here at Oilers Nation:

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 mike
May 18 2013, 09:33AM
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Good read

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#2 bwar
May 18 2013, 10:02AM
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The thing that discourages me is the lack of deep draft picks making it to the NHL. Horcoff is really the only past 2nd round Oiler draft pick that is on the roster, with Peckham and Hartikainen flirting with making the roster. And most likely both those guys will have a tougher time making the team next year assuming management does try and improve over the off season.

So with Horcoff as a potential buyout option and Peckham and Hartikainen on the outside looking in, it is possible that our starting roster next season features no one drafted by the Oilers later than the 2nd round and certainly no one playing a significant role drafted later than the 2nd round.

Now I don't know if this is more from poor development or poor late round drafting but in my mind the signs point to a deficiency in at least one of those areas.

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#3 nunyour
May 18 2013, 10:17AM
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This is why I don't understand why fans think a second round pick is so valuable,a very small percent ever make it to the nhl.

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#4 RexLibris
May 18 2013, 10:19AM
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This raises the next question: if we are getting to close to the five year window on draft pick evaluation for the 2010 draft class (the beginning of the rebuild, by most accounts), how do we grade the scouting group and what does this say about Stu MacGregor's time as head scout, particularly as it relates to his North American selections?

Also, given that we have a change in management, and that management is often to one to provide the scouting priorities to the amateur department, do we wait another three years to determine if the amateur group has improved performance on some of their depth picks in the CHL and NCAA?

I understand the point of the article is that there is some onus owing to the players themselves, but there has been a myopic trend towards certain types of players these past few years with the later picks that eventually has to come back to those making the recommendations.

This isn't to argue that the scouting department needs to be fired, but rather that a refocus or alteration of their priorities may be in order. As in the case of the prospects themselves, I believe the talent is there to identify potential NHL players, I just have to question some of the ways in which that information is being parsed and prioritized.

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#5 Supernova
May 18 2013, 10:29AM
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I think the oilers organization is at a new crossroads with their farm and junior systems.

They finally have enough prospects in the system, as well as 5 of the top 6 or 7 players on the big club. This is really where push comes to shove on development. The farm system is meant to produce those 3rd and 4th liners.

I really hope OKC scales back its veterans like green, cheechoo and a few others they brought in over the past years.

Let guys like Vande velde and arcobella, and lander assume the leadership reigns.

The key to this is signing a Lapierre type as their 4th line Center and a smithson type as their 13 or 14 th forward. So Lander is forced to stay on the farm until he is over ripe.

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#6 @Oilanderp
May 18 2013, 10:34AM
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Preliminary concern, yes. Let's wait until 2015 for those 2010 draft picks to let us know what they are.

So you want to move up in the lineup eh? Earn it, or justify through performance when you are given a shot. Let's hope the years of entitlement are over in Edmonton.

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#7 Romulus' Apotheosis
May 18 2013, 10:47AM
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Great article.

Couple of "contingency caveats" are probably in order.

1) "development" is almost always crooked. The Taylor Halls of the world are the exception. The fact that Rajala (for example) outperforms his projection is just as likely as Pitlick's underdevelopment.

2) Injury.

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#8 Rama Lama
May 18 2013, 11:17AM
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RexLibris wrote:

This raises the next question: if we are getting to close to the five year window on draft pick evaluation for the 2010 draft class (the beginning of the rebuild, by most accounts), how do we grade the scouting group and what does this say about Stu MacGregor's time as head scout, particularly as it relates to his North American selections?

Also, given that we have a change in management, and that management is often to one to provide the scouting priorities to the amateur department, do we wait another three years to determine if the amateur group has improved performance on some of their depth picks in the CHL and NCAA?

I understand the point of the article is that there is some onus owing to the players themselves, but there has been a myopic trend towards certain types of players these past few years with the later picks that eventually has to come back to those making the recommendations.

This isn't to argue that the scouting department needs to be fired, but rather that a refocus or alteration of their priorities may be in order. As in the case of the prospects themselves, I believe the talent is there to identify potential NHL players, I just have to question some of the ways in which that information is being parsed and prioritized.

Your response is very insightful. I too share your concerns about what type of player we seem to gravitate towards in draft selections.

I think it's safe to say we place too much emphasis on skill, and speed with other intangibles being less relevant. This has caused our team to be bloated with small fast forwards ........there are too many to mention.

What I have never heard anyone talk about from the organization is the mental makeup and internal motivations of a player. I call this the junkyard mentality of a player, that being when things get hairy out there which players rise to the top, which fold, and which start playing hide and seek.

We need to get some real junk yard dogs to compliment and protect our youth. Scouting plays a very pivotal role in finding these players and we can start with this years draft.

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#9 Naky
May 18 2013, 11:27AM
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I'm not going to be so quick to write off the scouting department yet. Their defensive picks have been pretty solid with no real major disappointments thus far in the past few years and the forwards have been an odd mix of a few small skill guys and a lot of potential coke machines and to me that sounds like an upper management decision rather than a scouting one. The scouts' job is to present them with the best options but it's the management's job to make the selection in the end.

I think the heart of the problem is that they're striking out on getting the players they actually really wanted (Samuelson anyone?) and are being forced to take their second/third choice on the list. Again, I'm more willing to put this on upper management's shoulders for being unable to make the deals to move up in the draft to grab the type of players they ultimately wanted than the scouts for providing the wrong info or anything like that.

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#10 RexLibris
May 18 2013, 12:22PM
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@Rama Lama

Which is funny, because I actually think they've been focusing too much on finding the next Lucic, a scoring winger with size.

I'd really like to know how high Tambellini went in trying to trade up for the Samuelsson pick last year. It would tell us two things: 1. how conservative Tambellini really was and 2. how desperate the Oilers are to draft size.

I agree on the psychology part of the process, but I believe that Tambellini mentioned emphasizing some of that during one of the early Oil Change episodes, in the wake of the Souray incident. He wanted character people.

With that in mind, reading through Jason Gregor's interview with Sean Monahan and looking at how he responded to being on a terrible team this past season, I hope the Oilers trade up with Carolina to get him (something like our 7th and 37th and Hemsky for their 5th and 35th and perhaps a LW prospect). Monahan has talent, size, and apparently a level of professionalism and maturity that will likely serve him, and his team, well.

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#11 BURROWSHASCRABS
May 18 2013, 12:51PM
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Jesus I think Samuelsson's a bit overhyped? He was nothing but a bumb against the Hawks series. Not impressed one bit. Just a another cheap shot piece of sh!t just like his dad.

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#12 Lexi
May 18 2013, 12:59PM
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This to me should be MacT's most important questions to ask of the organization this offseason, because if we don't start developing some NHLers with our second and third round picks we will be the Atlanta Thrashers. I have no clue what the answer is, but I hope every part of the org is scrutinized. My gut says if we can get stability in the coaching area that will allow better communication of expectations of player development and allow scouts to just focus on BPA rather than solving organizational holes.

I hope they use Pitlick, Lander, Marancin and Tuebert as guys to evaluate how Nelson is at development.

We have six to eight legit D prospects in the system and I believe the goal should be to have at least three of them provide a total of at least 60 minutes of legit NHL defense within three years of now.

This playoff run by OKC reflects very well on Nelson. They have run a pretty good mix of prospects and vets and they are kind of reminding me of the 2006 Oiler run. If you look at the 2010 Binghampton team that everyone says is the key to Ottawa's turn around they had lots of young guys, but their two leading scorers were Ryan Keller and Ryan Potulny.

One final point on the 2010 second round. There are a ton of misses in that round. The four guys taken after Pitlick would all be in the suspect category. Marancin would definitely be in the top 10 of the second round. Faulk is the only home run, and Zucker, Toffoli and maybe Jarnkrok are the only other strong prospects. Chicago, who is considered one of the top drafting teams had four seconds and none of them are trending as well as Pitlick, let alone Marancin.

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#13 Quicksilver ballet
May 18 2013, 01:07PM
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@ Jonathan Willis.

So there's no wiggle room at all? They'll be more than happy to give him the other 83 over the next 11 yrs?

Have to believe they try to get themselves out from underneath that obligation, sooner rather than later, i'm hoping.

Hope, it's being sold here at an unprecedented rate. Are we being force fed way too much of all this hope B/S Jonathan?

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#14 Rama Lama
May 18 2013, 03:05PM
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@Lexi

Your comments on judging Nelson on developing players is legit..........however you cannot develop talent that is not there. Hamilton, Pitlick, Tubert, were bad picks to begin with and probably have had injuries that prevented their development.

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#15 Rama Lama
May 18 2013, 03:19PM
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@RexLibris

I too would be very interested in finding out what potential deals there were out there for Samuelsson?

I like your idea of getting Monahan as he got his points playing with marginal talent......he seems to have some of the intangibles that have no stat or metric attached to them.

As far as Souray goes.........I truly believe that he was not managed properly by the Oilers too many arrow point directly to Quinn, and Lowe. If I were going to judge anyone character, it would not be Souray........he handled himself professionally and for the most part no different than anyone else in his position. There is an unwritten rule in the NHL that prevents players from slagging management, ( mainly because they do not want to get black balled) but this does not always mean management, or the lack thereof, is right to begin with.

I hold management responsible for improperly managing a very high profile player ( Souray) and devaluing his talent..........to the determent of the team.

Speaking of character guys, what do you think of Darnell Nurse? This guy seems to ooze character, something we desperately need on the back end.

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#16 madjam
May 19 2013, 06:38AM
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Rama Lama wrote:

Your comments on judging Nelson on developing players is legit..........however you cannot develop talent that is not there. Hamilton, Pitlick, Tubert, were bad picks to begin with and probably have had injuries that prevented their development.

Tend to agree with talent level of some . Most, almost here, are in lineup already or frequent call ups . Perhaps to much youth on farm , and limits some of their overall playing time and situations .

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